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Action needed to widen pool of apprentices

The OU has today (Thursday) published a new report Access to Apprenticeships. It calls for the UK Government to help businesses further attract and recruit more disabled apprentices, through its apprenticeship programme.

It comes as fresh data from the Department for Education shows the number of people starting apprenticeships in England with learning difficulties and/or disabilities is at 12.3%. This percentage is almost half that of people in the general population who are declared as having a disability (19.5%).

Over two in three employers (68%) said that hiring apprentices or graduates with a disability is an important priority for them

The OU report is based on the results of a major survey of over 700 large and small employers across England. It finds employers feel “unequipped” to provide equal opportunities to people with declared disabilities.

And close to half of organisations (47%) believe their companies could do with more internal support to help apprentices or entry-level graduates with declared disabilities

Over two in three employers (68%) said that hiring apprentices or graduates with a disability is an important priority for them, and over a third (38%) have started to proactively recruit individuals with a disability over the past three years.

Challenges reported on securing funding and/or resources

However, many reported challenges in knowing where to turn for information and advice, how to seek any additional funding or resources required, or indeed securing the internal resource required to better support apprentices with declared disabilities (e.g. the training of line managers). The report also found an increase in apprentices reporting mental health conditions.

The OU is a leading provider of higher and degree apprenticeships and in 2017/18 (the latest figures available), the OU was the second largest HEI provider of higher and degree apprenticeships in England, working with over 400 employers. Providing high-quality and flexible apprenticeships supports our mission and provides life-changing opportunities to help open up education to even more people across the UK.

The survey focuses on employers in England and puts forward recommendations to the UK Government.

The survey unearthed a widespread lack of understanding of the support available to assist the recruitment of apprentices and graduates with declared disabilities. Almost a quarter of employers (24%) face challenges in financing the additional support required to train and develop individuals with a disability and over a quarter of decision makers (29%) report they don’t have the training to enable them to better support employees with declared disabilities.

There is widespread recognition about the benefits of a diverse workforce and the importance of providing training opportunities for people with declared disabilities. To help increase the number of apprentices with declared disabilities, The Open University has published four recommendations for the UK Government to ensure that government, training providers and employers can work better together to support, recruit and retain more apprentices with disabilities. Specifically:

  • Enhance recruitment support

The UK Government needs to do more to support employers to promote apprenticeship vacancies to people with disabilities through their campaign activity and their vacancy service. Consideration should be given to how employers can utilise the Apprenticeship Service to show that they are disability-friendly, promote roles that are suitable for individuals with different types of disability and identify disability-friendly training providers and specialist/third sector organisations that they can work with to identify and on-board candidates.

  • Provide more transparent Information, Advice and Guidance

Both the UK Government and training providers need to provide much better and clearer information advice and guidance (IAG) to all employers hiring apprentices, and in particular to SMEs, around the support available to recruit and develop apprentices with disabilities (for example Access to Work).

  • Simplify the funding and clarify the eligibility and assessment processes

To ensure every individual receives the support they deserve. The Department for Education should consider how the current funding model for individual learners, providers and employers seeking additional learning support can be radically simplified.

  • Improve education and training for employers

It is vital that all those working with apprentices with disabilities are fully trained and able to support individual needs to help them to succeed. A common programme of education should be considered for all employers recruiting apprentices with disabilities along the lines of the Mental Health First Aid programme.

Increase in applications from those declaring mental health conditions

The survey also highlighted the prevalence of mental health conditions amongst the workforce, with one third (34%) of employers reporting an increase in entry-level applications from candidates with declared mental health conditions. In fact, mental health conditions are the most commonly reported workplace disability, with 28% of employers reporting their presence within their organisation.

Employers who reported an increase in declared mental health conditions amongst apprentices and entry-level graduates believe the increase comes down to a number of factors, the most widely reported being personal non-work related issues (45%), increased stress at work (42%), and a reduced stigma around mental health (40%).

Laura Burley, Apprenticeships Ambassador at The Open University responded to the findings:

Support is available from both the UK Government and learning providers to enable businesses to hire and support apprentices with declared disabilities. Our report shows that a lack of understanding of the resources available creates a disconnect and as a result, there is a danger it reduces the opportunities that are opened up to candidates with declared disabilities.

“At The Open University, we are committed to ensuring that education is ‘open to all’ and apprentices and students with declared disabilities have access to equal opportunities.  The OU has over 24,000 students with a declared disability, which is over half of the UK’s disabled part-time undergraduate student population.

“We know that employers have a strong appetite to grow the number of apprentices they hire in the future and also want to reap the benefits of a diverse workforce and hire more apprentices with disabilities so today we are calling on the UK Government to help make clear the support that’s available for employers, and examine how the apprenticeship levy in England could be used to streamline the process and widen access to the workplace for apprentices with declared disabilities.  

With a growing number of people facing mental health challenges, it needs to be a top priority to ensure that employers are equipped to help employees, particularly those entering the workforce for the first time as apprentices or entry-level graduates. We are delighted to publish this survey to help promote a positive conversation on how employers, governments and providers can be committed to providing healthy and appropriate working environments.”

About Author

Christine is a manager in the Media Relations team within the Marcomms Unit at the OU. She is an experienced BBC journalist, sub-editor and news editor and has a background in regional newspapers. After moving to PR she worked as a press officer for the Zoological Society of London. She has a BSc in Social Sciences with Politics from The Open University; she focuses on STEM stories and widening access in HE. Chris swims regularly and has a pet Tortoise called Lightning.

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